I was checking historical life expectancy and found the chart shown below in Roser, Ortiz-Ospina, Ritchie, 2013.

What was the reason for such a dramatic decline in life expectancy in England in the middle of the 16th century?

Is this just a data glitch or was there a major war or plague at that time? I could not find anything that would explain such a dramatic decline.

Average life expectancy

  1. Roser M., Ortiz-Ospina E., Ritchie H. Life Expectancy: OurWorldInData.org, 2013. Retrieved from: 'https://ourworldindata.org/life-expectancy' [Online Resource]
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    If you really want to obscure the date, you should write it in binary, it's less archaic.
    – pipe
    Commented Feb 28, 2021 at 16:16
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    @pipe For whatever reason I thought that centuries should be denoted by roman numerals. But I guess the consensus is that it should not: erinwrightwriting.com/how-to-write-centuries
    – ruslaniv
    Commented Mar 1, 2021 at 6:17
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    (Maybe it's not the case in English, but...) in some languages/cultures it's common and the correct way to write centuries using roman numerals. The arabic version seems strange. I guess OP might come from that kind of a background. Commented Mar 1, 2021 at 15:40
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    @GrzegorzOledzki Actually, English is the only language I know that doesn't routinely use Roman numerals for centuries Commented Mar 1, 2021 at 21:56
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    Nitpick: that chart shows data for "United Kingdom", which didn't exist as an entity at the time of the 1557 influenza pandemic referred to in any answer. It may be worth clarifying the source of the image and its underlying data so that future readers can understand if it refers to the pre-union geographical area of the United Kingdom, England alone, or something else entirely. Note this quibble is only in regard to the chart-Q discrepancy. Cheers!
    – bertieb
    Commented Mar 2, 2021 at 9:24

1 Answer 1


This was primarily due to the 1557 influenza pandemic, which returned in 1558 and perhaps lingered for another year or two. This was a global pandemic and other areas of Europe were also severely hit. Making things even worse was that the influenza was preceded by plague, typhus, measles (hat tip: Rusl) and famine in some regions of Europe.

Influenza significantly contributed to England's unusually high death rates for 1557–58: Data compiled on over 100 parishes in England found that the mortality rates increased by up to 60% in some areas during the flu epidemic...

As a result, the population of England fell by an estimated 2% between 1557 and 1559 and deaths for the year 1558 were 80% above normal.

This pandemic was a global one and

was highly fatal, with deaths recorded as being due to pleurisy and fatal peripneumony. It first infested Asia, then Constantinople, and having spread all over Europe, afterwards attacked America. Before autumn 1557, it simultaneously hit all parts of Spain so quickly that: «the greater part of the population in that Kingdom were seized with it almost on the same day»

Thomas Short described the epidemic based on contemporary reports, the disease: «came from the land Melite in Africa, into Sicily; so into Spain, and Italy […]. It attacked at once, and raged all over Europe, not missing a family and scarce a person.

Source: Rosamaria Alibrandi, 'When early modern Europe caught the flu. A scientific account of pandemic influenza in sixteenth century Sicily'. In Medicina Historica 2018; Vol. 2, N. 1: 19-26.

A Note on Life Expectancy

Note that the life expectancy figures quickly rose again, and that the source of the data in the question states that:

Shown is period life expectancy at birth, the average number of years a newborn would live if the pattern of mortality in the given year were to stay the same throughout its life.

or, to put it in a slightly different way,

The statistic “Life expectancy at birth” actually refers to the average number of years a newborn is expected to live if mortality patterns at the time of its birth remain constant in the future. In other words, it’s looking at the number of people of different ages dying that year, and provides a snapshot of these overall “mortality characteristics” that year for the population.

(My emphasis)

Some Historical Context

Also worth noting is that the 1557 pandemic was not the first, but it is better documented than the ones that came before it:

...although influenza has been known in Europe since the middle of the 13th century and there are some records documenting six visitations in the 14th century, and four in the 15th, it only began to be studied by the profession from the start of the following century. Only then records of erupted epidemics appeared, together with the circumstances which attended their outbreak and progression, and their characteristic symptoms.

Source: Alibrandi

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    In the summer of 1557 parts of Europe had just suffered outbreaks of plague, typhus, measles, and smallpox when influenza arrived... - wow!
    – ruslaniv
    Commented Feb 28, 2021 at 9:49
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    Excellent post! And I'm glad you noted that the technical term "Life Expectancy" for someone born in xxxx doesn't actually mean the length of life expected by someborn in xxxx, but is a distinctly confusing construct. (As this confusion is distinctly current...)
    – Mark Olson
    Commented Feb 28, 2021 at 13:33
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    @RusI But vaccination is a hoax and doesn't save lives, apparently. ;) The Santayana quote "Those who do not remember the past are condemned to repeat it" was never more true, and this is the past the anti-vaxxers are repeating.
    – Graham
    Commented Mar 1, 2021 at 10:09
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    also perhaps worth noting that life expectancy at birth is largely dominated by infant mortality throughout most of history, and most of the rapid rise in life expectancy starting in the early 19th century in the UK is primarily due to reducing infant mortality, and not due to adults dying later
    – Tristan
    Commented Mar 1, 2021 at 10:13
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    Also, quite interesting, that for over 100 years, from around 1600 to 1750, life expectancy was steadily trending downwards! I wonder if there is an explanation for this (I'm sure there is one).
    – ruslaniv
    Commented Mar 1, 2021 at 17:08

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